An Emotional Toolkit
Learning to live lives to the full
As a church, we’re currently looking at how we live lives to the full by ensuring that we care properly for our mental, spiritual, physical, emotional and relational wellbeing. During his recent talk on Emotions, Adrian led us through a tool to help us recognise that what we’re feeling can often be covering layers of other emotions, and that in order to fully navigate and process those it’s important to learn to recognise them. In this blog, we’re going to go a little deeper into how we do that, how we then give voice to those emotions, and finally how we bring them to God and allow Him to help us with them.
You can listen to the whole talk using the embedded player below, or download it on a computer through Soundcloud here.
A key problem which can affect us is that we don’t necessarily have the tools to articulate the way we feel. As a result, when we do feel a strong emotion, we don’t know what to do with it, and because we can’t describe what we’re feeling, we end up dealing with it in a negative way — by denying it, dumping it on others, allowing it to fester, firing it out at anyone and everyone, or simply trying to escape it.
The key is to learn to understand how we feel. The book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero lists eight categories that most emotions can be broken down into. These are the most common things we might feel, but on their own, they’re not particularly helpful. There are hundreds of emotions that each of us can experience. So how do we get beneath the surface?
A good way to imagine it is as if you’re peeling an onion. The first thing you feel, that initial surge of emotion, is like the papery edge. It can be pretty unpleasant at times; brown, squidgy and rather rough around the edges. In learning to understand our emotions, it’s as if we’re peeling off the layers of the onion to reveal what’s really underneath. That’s often not an easy process. The real stuff, just like in an onion, can make our eyes start to water.
When you discover an emotion, the next best question to ask is “Why do I feel like this?” That’s where the eight categories come in. Each one is accompanied by a range of deeper, more specific descriptions, and as you reflect on what happened and how it made you feel, you might find that you uncover more clarity on that initial emotion, or you might realise that it’s actually been masking a deeper emotion in another category entirely.
ANGER (fury, hostility, irritability, annoyance)
SADNESS (grief, self-pity, despair, dejection, loneliness)
FEAR (anxiety, edginess, nervousness, fright, terror, apprehension)
ENJOYMENT (joy, relief, contentment, delight, thrill, euphoria, ecstasy)
LOVE (acceptance, trust, devotion, adoration)
SURPRISE (shock, amazement, wonder)
DISGUST (contempt, scorn, aversion, distaste, revulsion)
SHAME (guilt, remorse, humiliation, embarrassment, chagrin)
As you peel back the layers, and start to get to the real stuff, it can be tempting to go back. To retreat again to that initial emotion. It can be one we feel more comfortable with because it’s masking the uncomfortable realities that lie beneath. Beginning to understand the true depth of what we’re feeling can be a difficult process. The further we go, the more our eyes will water. But, at the same time, the more reality we will find. We need to keep asking the “why” question, until at last we hit the bottom. It might be that our initial surge of anger is covering up the fact that we feel misunderstood, which is causing us to feel dejected, because beneath all that is a feeling of loneliness, and a belief that we’re not loved, and not accepted. That’s the heart of what’s going on, but we need to learn to recognise that before we can begin to deal with those emotions in a healthy way.
When you hit the why, you then reach a point where you’re able to begin to give voice. Having recognised what exactly is going on inside, the next stage is to begin to speak it out. This can be done with others, sharing with those closest to us how we’re feeling and what’s behind it, but ultimately the person we need to bring our emotions to is God.
We need to express to him, warts and all, what’s going on inside us. Of course, God knows what’s going on, He designed us and created us, and knows us far better than we know ourselves. Giving voice isn’t about telling God something He doesn’t know, it’s about opening ourselves up in order that He might be able to come and minister to us. The Psalms are full of this; writers crying out, “God I feel alone”, “God I feel scared”, “God you feel distant”. This is what happened and how I feel. We give voice to the uncomfortable realities taking place within us in order that we might come to who understands.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1: 3–4)
We don’t come to an empty room, we’re not approaching an abandoned throne, we’re not scrambling to find a distant God. We come to the Father and origin of all comfort and compassion. A Father of love and grace, who longs to meet us in our troubles and bring the comfort that we’re seeking. A Father who’s big enough to hear everything we are feeling. We come knowing that there’s nothing we can express that He isn’t big enough to wrap around.
As we do that, as we recognise those truths and open ourselves up to who He is, sharing how we feel, we reach the point where we’re able to receive His comfort; the “But God” moment of saying, “This is how I’m doing, but God, I come to You, lay it before You, and receive again the goodness you have for me.” So often, we can be tempted to rush this process, to skip quickly from that initial emotion to God and skim over what His comfort might look like in that circumstance, to try and gain mastery over our emotions and disguise it as faith. We need to allow the depth of his comfort to reach the depth of the pain we’ve been feeling. This isn’t a process we can rush. He’ll only be able to meet us to the degree that we’ve given voice to what’s really going on inside.
At the same time though, we’re also invited to come and share the depth of joy we might be feeling. Most of this blog has focused on moments when we might be struggling, but it’s equally true that we’re to learn to recognise our emotions, give voice to them, and allow for a “but God” moment when things are going really well! We need to share those with God too in order that both the highs and the lows might become an act of worship to Him, and that we might increasingly learn what it is to open ourselves up to an encounter with Him whatever our circumstances look like at that particular moment.
Putting it into Practice
So, we’re to learn to recognise what we’re feeling, give voice to it, open ourselves up to a “But God” moment, and receive from the Father of comfort the assurance that He is with us and has what we need. Now comes the challenge: putting it into practice. As we increasingly learn to do this individually and as a community, here are a couple of questions to help us get started:
What changes do you need to make to begin to apply this toolkit?
Who do you need to help you to do this?